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Bucs need to initiate youth movement

The last time Jon Gruden faced the Raiders, he was jumping over Oakland tight end Doug Jolley while racing down the sideline as cornerback Dwight Smith returned his second interception for a touchdown in the Bucs' 48-21 win in Super Bowl XXXVII.

Since then, there's been no jolly in Gruden-ville.

The Bucs are 7-11 since hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, losers of four straight and eight of their past 11 dating to last season.

Tonight, Gruden will try to prevent the Bucs from starting the season with three straight losses for the first time since 1996. Welcome to the bad old days.

It's hard to imagine anyone falling faster without wearing a parachute.

"Unfortunately, we've got some guys that aren't playing right now," Gruden said. "You know, (Michael) Pittman has been in the top 10 in total offense the last two years. Keenan McCardell had a lot of catches the last two years. Joe Jurevicius and (Joey) Galloway were guys we expected to make major contributions. That's life. I don't want to philosophize in the newspaper, but people who know me, people who know football, know facts are facts."

Here's a few more:

Dismantling a Super Bowl champion is never easy, and the Bucs were old when Gruden arrived in 2002. His biggest mistake is making them older.

The Bucs had 16 thirtysomethings when they left training camp, tying them for the second most in the NFL. At an average age of nearly 28, Tampa Bay has the oldest roster in the league.

With a sinking ship, Gruden and GM Bruce Allen are clinging to anything that floats. So they moan about the lack of draft picks and a poor salary-cap situation.

Some of that is of their own doing. Trading Keyshawn Johnson cost the Bucs millions in "dead money" on the salary cap, the result of his accelerated $13-million signing bonus. The same will happen next year if they cut Brad Johnson loose.

But in many instances, Gruden and Allen have chosen old players over younger ones.

Instead of re-signing 26-year-old running back Thomas Jones, they went with 32-year-old Charlie Garner, paying him a $4-million signing bonus.

Jones is the Bears' leading rusher with 219 yards on 44 attempts, a 5.0 average per carry.

"The signing bonus had a lot to do with it," Gruden said of the decision not to re-sign Jones. "Again, the salary-cap structure, you can add maybe one player of that caliber. Or you could say maybe we should go out and get Mario Edwards and Ian Gold and re-sign Ellis Wyms. Maybe we can keep these three guys in this package as opposed to that one guy in that package."

Here's another guy they may regret losing: punt returner Mark Jones. The Bucs placed their seventh-round pick on waivers and he was claimed by the Giants. Yet, all last week they complained about 38-year-old Tim Brown having to return punts.

Who knows if Jones will become an impact player in the league. But as a punt returner, he has a bigger upside than Brown. Allen said the decision came down to Jones or Frank Murphy. Actually, it also came down to Jones and the third fullback who's inactive every week.

Like it or not, Gruden may have to swallow hard and try to rebuild the Bucs with young players. Every team has injuries. Every team is only a few plays from turning it around.

Gruden is right, there are not a lot of good 26-year-olds to be had on the open market. But you don't have to settle for the 36-year-olds, either.

Look at his current roster. Why is tight end Will Heller inactive every week? How much worse would Anthony Davis, Kenyatta Walker and Sean Mahan play than Derrick Deese, Todd Steussie and Matt Stinchcomb?

Yeah, losing old players is tough. But losing games gets even older.

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